Monday 16 September 2019

John Bruton: 'UK should realise the backstop isn’t a trap, it’s a bridge across contradictions of Brexit'

Red lines: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Fusion Energy Research Centre in Abingdon, England. Photo: Getty Images
Red lines: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Fusion Energy Research Centre in Abingdon, England. Photo: Getty Images

John Bruton

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has claimed Britain would find it "easier" to negotiate a good long-term deal with Brussels if it had first crashed out of the EU than if it ratified the Withdrawal Agreement.

Doing this would mean binning the entire content of the treaty, not just the backstop.

Settlements painstakingly reached in the treaty on transitional matters, like the rights of existing cross-border workers, the recognition of existing professional qualifications, social security, mutual financial obligations, enforcement of contracts and judicial decisions, and a transition period up to the end of 2020 would all go into the waste bin.

If, after that, the UK then decided it wanted to negotiate a new agreement, these issues would have to be renegotiated from scratch.

That extra workload would be on top of the negotiation of the future EU/UK deal which, given the range of subjects to be covered, would probably be the most complex trade negotiation ever undertaken in human history.

Binning the treaty now would delay the finalisation of a future agreement by several years.

The psychological damage to UK/EU relations caused by a wilful choice of no deal by the UK would also have to be repaired. A prudent foreign secretary would consider these matters more carefully than Mr Raab appears to have done.

It is, of course, true the backstop in the existing agreement constrains the UK's negotiating options for a future trade deal because it requires the UK to take account of its obligations under the Belfast Agreement as well.

But that backstop is only there because Theresa May, in late 2016, drew three red lines for the UK's future relationship: no customs union, no single market, and no ECJ jurisdiction... while still remaining a party to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

These three red lines conflicted with the Belfast Agreement, into which the UK freely entered in 1998 with the approval of parliament. The Belfast Agreement was the basis of which Ireland changed its Constitution. No minor matter.

The three red lines, by their very nature, require the UK to "take control" of its borders and the only land border the UK has with the EU is in Ireland.

Border controls were always the essence of Brexit. Yet the man who led the Brexit campaign in 2016, Boris Johnson, is now saying the opposite, that the UK will not impose any border controls in Ireland and any controls there might be will be someone's else's fault.

In fact, under WTO rules, the UK itself will almost certainly have to have controls of its own once it leaves the EU.

Meanwhile EU law, the EU customs code, requires any EU state, if it has a border with any state that is not in the customs union and single market, has to have border controls.

The UK knows this well, because its officials helped draw up the customs code. They are familiar with every comma and full stop and know all the customs obligations a no-deal will impose on Ireland.

Last week in Belfast, Mr Johnson said he respects the "letter and the spirit" of the Belfast Agreement.

It calls for close cross-border co-operation on issues like the environment, health, agriculture, electricity, education and tourism. It stands to reason this will be made much more difficult if Northern Ireland and Ireland are no longer part of the same market for goods and services.

The UK red lines will also lead to diverging professional qualifications, quality standards for goods and services, and consumer protection standards between north and south, and the UK and Ireland.

Even without physical border controls that divergence, by its nature, pulls the two parts of Ireland further apart from one another, and pulls Britain and Ireland apart too. It thus upsets the subtle balance between Unionist and Nationalist identities in Northern Ireland the Belfast Agreement created.

Brexit, of its nature, contradicts the spirit of the agreement to which Johnson says he is fully committed.

The backstop was an attempt to build a bridge between these two radically contradictory British positions, Brexit and the Belfast Agreement.

It was not a trap set to tie the UK to the EU, but rather an attempt to help the UK reconcile the two contradictory positions it itself had taken up - the one it took in 1998, and the one it took in 2016.

At first, the backstop was to apply to Northern Ireland alone, but it was the UK that requested that it be extended to island of Britain as well.

The fact it was the UK that asked for this extension belies the idea the backstop was some sort of Brussels conspiracy to keep the UK in the EU orbit, a theory promoted in pro-Brexit circles. The UK parliament has now thrice rejected the Withdrawal Agreement and, with it, the backstop.

But the underlying conflict between Brexit and the Belfast Agreement remains unresolved. The new UK government has no solid proposals of its own for reconciling the basic contradiction. Instead, the UK wants to fix responsibility for its own dilemma on Dublin and Brussels.

A crash-out Brexit is bound to create ill will and could not possibly make the negotiation of a future agreement easier.

A no-deal Brexit now will not finalise anything on November 1.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss